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Feb 26 2013

Getting it right with the Breeding Task Force

Last week’s Maryland Racing Commission meeting made one thing clear.  Commission chairman Bruce Quade does not regard the industry-wide love-in that followed the signing of the much-ballyhooed 10-year deal as either a part of the misty past or as mere media frippery.

No, sir.  He actually seems to think that racing’s various constituencies might, you know, talk with each other and even — gasp — get along.

But racing’s era of good feelings may receive an immediate test in the coming weeks.  The Breeding Task Force that Quade formed some months ago unveiled its recommendations at last week’s meeting; Quade has charged the group now with discussing its ideas with the racetracks and with the horsemen.

Those recommendations (see table) include significant purse enhancements for Maryland-breds and could bring the Task Force into conflict with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA), the group representing the state’s horsemen and possessing significant influence on the use of the purse account..

The challenge now is for the groups to work cooperatively to achieve a solution.

The difference between the proposed purse enhancements and the current system of owner bonuses is fairly significant.  For one thing, owner bonuses go directly in the owner’s pocket; purse enhancements, on the other hand, will be shared among owners, trainers, and jockeys and will count towards a horse’s earnings.

More to the point, the current owner bonuses come from the Maryland-bred fund.  The proposed purse enhancements would come from the purse account.

According to the Task Force, that would direct some $2.4 million to Maryland-bred horses.  The average overnight purse for a Maryland-bred would rise from $27,700 to $33,670; for non-Maryland-breds, it would decline to $25,900, although that decline would likely be offset by anticipated future purse increases.

One issue, of course, will be the dollars.  MTHA general counsel Alan Foreman laid down a marker following last week’s meeting, telling the Baltimore Sun (here), “If anybody thinks there’s a big pot of gold [in the purse account], they’re kidding themselves.”

And in truth, there will be demands on the account.  In 2013, the racetracks will receive direct subsidies from the purse account.  In subsequent years, under the 10-year deal, shifts in how the takeout is split will provide more to the racetracks and less to horsemen.

Moreover, many horsemen see other problems as more pressing than aiding the breeding industry.  In particular, the lengthy downtime between the end of the Pimlico meet — Belmont day this year — and the reopening of Laurel in September poses real financial and logistical challenges for many horsemen, and many would prefer to see money spent on summer racing.

Finally, not everyone buys the philosophical underpinnings of the Task Force’s recommendations.  Some believe that the rising tide of Maryland racing will lift all boats, including the breeding industry, without the additional “home cooking” proposed by the Task Force (and common in other states).

Still, there’s no denying that Maryland’s once-proud breeding industry has suffered in recent years.  With declining foal crops nationwide, there’s real value to creating a  home field advantage that keeps local horses home.  What’s more, with racing supported by significant public money in the form of slots revenues, the continued viability of the breeding industry takes on an important political dimension; legislators will want to know that state money is creating jobs, saving open space, and boosting the economy here in Maryland.

The same slots money that places the industry under greater legislative scrutiny also gives it greater flexibility.  There’s more money to go around, and even if more is apportioned to support Maryland-breds, overnight purses will still be stronger than they’ve been in years.

Talk to MTHA or Maryland Horse Breeders Association representatives, and a clear picture emerges of a segmented industry in which people who ought to work together often instead find themselves at sword’s point.

It shouldn’t be this way.  There is considerable overlap among the memberships of the two groups.  Almost every horseman will at some point breed a horse or two, or more.  Almost every breeder will run a horse or two, or more.  A thriving breeding industry supports a vibrant racing product; a successful racing product promotes a vibrant breeding industry.  Whatever happens to this ship, we’re all in it together.

In this case, both parties have a responsibility.  “My way or the highway” won’t be a realistic demand from the Task Force.  Nancy Reaganism — “Just say no” — won’t be a viable response from the horsemen.

The challenge and the opportunity here are one and the same: for the horsemen and breeders to work together, as partners, to achieve a solution that advances Maryland’s racing and breeding industries.

Otherwise?  Could be one short era of good feelings.

TASK FORCE PROPOSALS

 

PROGRAM CURRENT PROPOSED
Owner Incentives 17.5% of purse earnings; winner only; allowance and claiming races with minimum claim price of $20,000 only; additional for maiden winners; money from bred fund 30% of purse earnings; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd; all races; money from purse account
Breeder Incentives 17.5%; winner only most races; first through fourth in stakes; from bred fund 30%; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd; all races; from bred fund
Stallion Incentives 8.75%; winner only; from bred fund 10%; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd; all races; from bred fund
State-bred races Stakes only; from bred fund Stakes only — for now; from bred fund
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